Why Twitter is like Times Now

One reason I stopped watching news television about a decade back is because of its evolution into a “one issue channel”. On each day, a channel basically picks a “topic of the day”, and most discussion on that day is regarding that particular topic.

In that sense, these “news channels” hardly provide news (unless you bother to follow the tickers at the bottom) – they only provide more and more discussion about the topic du jour (ok I’m feeling all pseud about using French on my blog!). If you’re interested in that topic, and willing to consume endless content about it, great for you. If not, you better look for your news elsewhere (like the <whatever> o’clock news on the government-owned channel which at least makes a pretence of covering all relevant stuff).

One thing that made Twitter attractive soon after I joined it in 2008 was the diversity of discussions. Maybe it was the nature of the early users, but the people I followed provoked thought and provided content on a wide array of topics, at least some of which I would find interesting. And that made spending time on twitter worthwhile.

It’s still true on a lot of days nowadays, but I find that Twitter is increasingly becoming like a modern news channel such as Times Now. When there are certain events, especially of a political nature, it effectively becomes a one-topic channel, with most of the timeline getting filled with news and opinion about the event. And if it is either an event you don’t care about, or if you’ve moved on from the event, Twitter effectively becomes unusable on such days.

In fact, a few of my twitter breaks in the last 2-3 years have followed such periods when Twitter has turned into a “one issue channel”. And on each of these occasions, when I’ve joined back, I’ve responded by unfollowing many of these “one-issue tweeters” (like this guy who I don’t follow any more because he has a compulsive need to livetweet any game that Arsenal is playing).

That Twitter becomes a one-topic channel occasionally is not surprising. Basically it goes like this – there are people who are deeply passionate or involved in the topic, and they show their passion by putting out lots of tweets on the topic. And when the topic is a current event, it means that several people on your timeline might feel passionately about it.

People not interested in the topic will continue to tweet at their “usual rate”, but that gets effectively drowned out in the din of the passionate tweeters. And when you look at your linear timeline, you only see the passion, and not the diverse content that you use Twitter for.

Some people might suggest a curated algorithmic feed (rather than a linear feed) as a solution for this – where a smart algorithm learns that you’re not interested in the topic people are so passionate about and shows you less of that stuff. I have a simpler solution.

Basically the reason I’m loathe to unfollow these passionate tweeters is that outside of their temporary passions, they are terrific people and tweet about interesting stuff (else I wouldn’t follow them in the first place). The cost of this, however, is that I have to endure their passions, which I frequently have no interest in.

The simple solution is that you should be able to “temporarily unfollow” people (Twitter itself doesn’t need to allow this option – a third party client that you use can offer this at a higher layer). This is like WhatsApp where you can mute groups for just a day, or a week. So you can unfollow these passionate people for a day, by which time their passion will subside, and you can see their interesting selves tomorrow!

Of course it’s possible to manually implement this, but I know that if I unfollow them today I might forget to follow them back tomorrow. And there are countless examples of people in that category – who I unfollowed when they were passionate and have thus missed out on their awesomeness.

 

Commenting on social media

While I’m more off than on in terms of my consumption of social media nowadays, I find myself commenting less and less nowadays.

I’ve stopped commenting on blogs because I primarily consume them using an RSS reader (Feedly) on my iPad, and need to click through and use my iPad keyboard to leave comments, a hard exercise. And comments on this blog make me believe that it’s okay to not comment on blogs any more.

On Facebook, I leave the odd comment but find that most comments add zero value. “Oh, looking so nice” and “nice couple” and things like that which might flatter some people, but which make absolutely no sense once you start seeing through the flattery.

So the problem on Facebook is “congestion”, where a large number of non-value-adding comments may crowd out the odd comment that actually adds value, so you as a value-adding-commentor decide to not comment at all.

The problem on LinkedIn is that people use it mostly as a medium to show off (that might be true of all social media, but LinkedIn is even more so), and when you leave a comment there, you’re likely to attract a large number of show-offers who you are least interested in talking to. Again, there’s the Facebook problem here in terms of congestion. There is also the problem that if you leave a comment on LinkedIn, people might think you’re showing off.

Twitter, in that sense, is good in that you can comment and selectively engage with people who reply to your comment (on Facebook, when all replies are in one place, such selective engagement is hard, and you can offend people by ignoring them). You can occasionally attract trolls, but with a judicious combination of ignoring, muting and blocking, those can be handled.

However, in my effort to avoid outrage (I like to consume news but don’t care about random people’s comments on it), I’ve significantly pruned my following list. Very few “friends”. A few “twitter celebrities”. Topic-specific studs. The problem there is that you can leave comments, but when you see that nobody is replying to them, you lose interest!

So it’s Jai all over the place.

No comments.

How social media affects your life

My first attempt at writing of any kind was in 2004, when I edited the daily newsletter at Saarang, IIT Madras’s cultural festival. It was a fun experience (I remember digging out my newsletters sometime back, but cant seem to find them now), and I think RAP and I did a pretty good job.

Given that events would go on late into every night and we’d to bring out an edition every morning, some “preprocessing” was key, and I decided to solve the problem through some “online writing” (at the same time I was doing my B.Tech. project in online algorithms, but I digress). As and when I would make a pertinent observation (I borrowed the name for that newsletter, too), I would try and think about how I would describe it in the next day’s newsletter, and immediately jot it down in a notepad I carried.

This way, by the time RAP and I met every evening to compile the newsletter, most of the material would be in place and all we would have to do was to compile, edit and typeset it, and the newsletter would be ready. One time, when we knew that a quiz would go on till dawn (as per tradition), we wrote up the article even before it had happened based on how previous editions had gone. The winner’s name was inserted in the morning just before printing.

The reason I’m telling this story (which I might have told before) is that it inculcated in me the habit of trying to instantly describe in written word anything I saw. Going forward, it became a habit, though it didn’t have much outlet. Later in 2004 I started this blog, and when I would remember the thoughts I’d thought to describe things I saw, I would put it down on this blog.

Twitter changed all that. Now, as soon as I could describe something I saw in a meaningful (and short) fashion, there was an outlet for instant output. Facebook made it even better, allowing me to tell stories with photos and without a word limit (Facebook did photos long before Twitter did). Instagram did the same.

So seven or eight years on social media (I joined Facebook in late 2007 and Twitter in mid 2008) meant that my skill of quick written pertinent observations about just about anything I saw got a lot of encouragement (though, most times no one would react, and at times I would get trolled).

A month after going off social media, I realise that this habit has gotten completely ingrained into me, and irrespective of what I’m doing I’m thinking more about how I’d describe it in a few words (and maybe a picture), rather than enjoying the sight or sound or conversation or whatever! And knowing that I’ve denied myself this mode of output (social media) temporarily, it feels a bit odd when I mentally make one such observation, knowing there’s no way to put it out!

The thing is while I used to already do this before I got access to instant social media, the extent to which I’ve started reacting this way has changed significantly over the years! And I don’t know if that is a good thing.

Anyway, here’s an old style pertinent observation, being made much delayed, and put on this blog (rather than on any other media). I found this place called “ze fork on the water” on the Lake Geneva shoreline yesterday!

zefork

Twitter and negativity

One of the reasons that sparked my departure from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter two weeks back was an argument with my wife where she claimed that Twitter had made me too negative, and highly prone to trolling (even in “real life”). Accepting a challenge from her, I offered to go through my tweets over the last few months, and identify those that were negative. I also offered to perform a similar exercise with my blog.

I started off with the intention to go through tweets in the last one year and delete anything that was negative or “troll-y”. I allocated myself an hour to accomplish this, along with a similar exercise for my blog.

I must have spent fifty minutes going through my twitter feed, and didn’t manage to go back more than two months. I was surprised by my own sheer volume of tweeting. What was more surprising was the amazing lack of insight in most of those tweets – there were horrible PJs that I’d cracked just because I could, there were random replies to other people which didn’t add any kind of value, there was outrage about the lack of outrage and some plain banal life stuff (apart from some downright trolly stuff which I deleted).

It made for extremely painful reading, and I could hardly recognise myself from my own tweets. Apart from some personal markers, I would find it hard to recognise most of these tweets as my own if they were to be presented to me a few months later. It was a clear indication that it was time to exit twitter (though since I have a rather kickass username there I’m not deleting my account).

The ten minutes I spent that day going through this blog, however, was a sheer delight. I did end up deleting a couple of outragey posts (both of which were essentially collections of tweets which I’d collated for posterity), but most of my posts were mostly sheer delight! There was some kind of insight in each of my posts, and I’d lie if I were to say that I’m not proud of what I’ve written.

It’s not that I’ve not written shit on this blog (or its predecessor), having written posts as late as 2008 which I’m definitely not proud of. What I’ve noticed, however, is that I’ve evolved over time, and my writing style has been refined, and I think I continue to add significant value to my readers.

Twitter’s constant engagement feature, however, meant that it was hard to evolve there and hard to escape from the cycle of banal and negative tweets. My tweets from this February are unlikely to be qualitatively very different from those 5 years back, and that’s not a positive thing to say.

The thing with Twitter is that its short format encourages a “shoot first ask questions later” kind of thinking. You end up posting shit without thinking through it, and without having to construct a reasonable argument. This encourages outrage, and posting banal stuff. Spending one minute typing out a banal tweet is far lower cost than spending 20 minutes typing out a banal blog post – the latter is unlikely to be written unless there’s some kind of insight in it.

Outrage is one thing, but what’s really got to me with respect to twitter is its sheer ordinariness, and temporality (most tweets lose value a short period of time after they’re posted). It’s insane that it’s taken me so long (and three longish sabbaticals from twitter) to find out!

Twitter Peek-a-boo-boo

So I must confess that for the last one week I’ve been cheating. I’d made a grand statement here a couple of weeks back about being off twitter, and how it was giving me so much time. After that post, however, for a variety of reasons I logged on to twitter. And I’m not sure I want to return to it as yet.

The first time I returned to twitter was during Rahul Gandhi’s interview with Arnab Goswami last week. It was a fairly hilarious interview so I was interested in knowing what people were saying. I didn’t cheat fully that day – I used the otherwise rarely used twitter tab on my flipboard to see what people were saying.

The next morning, one of my election pieces got published in Mint. I have a mechanism where any post I put on any of my three blogs gets automatically posted on twitter. This, however, doesn’t work for things I put on Mint, and that needs publicity. And so I decided to log on for just one tweet.

While I was at it, I also happened to check my mentions and messages. There were lots of them. Just one tweet announcing my temporary absence hadn’t been seen by enough people, I think – there were lots of mentions and messages. To each of the messages, I replied with my email ID mentioning I’m not on twitter any more, and to not contact me there henceforth. I also spent a lot of time replying to some mentions. It must’ve been hilarious for those people to get the replies after so long. So I logged on, replied, posted my tweet about my piece and logged off. I saw some 10-20 tweets before I did that, and I thought I was missing something. I logged on again on Thursday to tweet another piece I’d written for Mint.

 

Again I tweeted, read a few tweets and disappeared. Felt happy being back again and thought I should prepare for a good limited comeback. I would only log on through the browser – no apps – and not use it on my mobile devices, I thought. However, I decided i’d give it a full month of absence before coming back.

That full month ended on Saturday.

When there is an event that makes you happy, you want to talk to other people who are feeling similarly. So I logged on to twitter yesterday as soon as Karnataka had won the Ranji trophy. And jai happened.

So it seems Narendra Modi was giving a speech somewhere at the same time, and my timeline was flooded with tweets about every word he said, and analyzing them. Offenders were on both sides – some gloating over Modi, others bitching about him. It was horrible.

And then I realized that the forthcoming elections are among the most polarized in India’s history. And this is the first national elections since everyone got on to twitter. I realized that the longer I stayed on twitter the more I would be subjected to such tripe. And I logged off.

I have made a mental note that when I do start my limited comeback on twitter, I should first unfollow all these political types. The problem is how fine I draw the filter – there are some people who mostly tweet political stuff. They can be safely unfollowed. There are trolls who tweet stuff just to draw attention. They can be unfollowed too. But what about those people who mostly tweet useful stuff but go into a frenzy during an event? What does one do about those? Until I have an answer to that I’ll delay my comeback.

And when I logged on yesterday, there were a few tweets about the Ranji trophy victory that made me happy. The one that made me happiest was this one: